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The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring A+
Year Released: 2001
Middle-earth can be an intimidating place. When J.R.R. Tolkien set out to write The Lord of the Rings, he developed every nuance of his mythical fairy tale world: history, geography, culture, even languages. His fans revel in the minutia, from the history of Gondor to the name of Gandalf's sword, but Tolkien understood -- as does Peter Jackson, who helms the extraordinary adaptation of his work -- that such complexity served greater ends. Middle-earth needed a good story at its heart, one that didn't rely on an intimate knowledge of Elvish or a breakdown of orc military tactics. As complex as they are, the books hold true to simple and universal themes: the value of friendship, the corrupting nature of power, the difficulty of doing the right thing. That's the nature of their magic, using a complex world to convey a very straightforward message. And like all the best stories, this one has an innocuous beginning: once upon a time, there was a hobbit named Frodo who had a ring that could destroy the world.
The Fellowship of the Ring is a perfectly conceived, exquisitely executed depiction of the first third of Tolkien's tale. It brings all of the medium's tools to bear, not to bludgeon or desensitize us, but to realize the scope of those words in a way few could even contemplate a short while ago. Jackson, who started his career making zombie pictures, spent years crafting his version of Middle-earth -- not to sell Happy Meals, but to tell a good story as well as he was able. It's been so long since the effects served the fiction, instead of the other way around, it's hard to remember... and all the more astounding when it arrives.
Like the Star Wars films, The Fellowship of the Ring depicts a fantasy world complete within itself, then keeps it in the background while the drama does the work. Jackson's effects house, WETA, coupled with production designer Grant Major and costume designer Nglia Dickson, produced a wondrous vista of elven spires, wizard's caves, and comfy hobbit holes. In their hands, the breathtaking landscape of New Zealand becomes the perfect stand-in for Middle-earth, intermingled with fantastic creatures that seem as real as neighborhood cats. The effects run the gamut from the spectacular (a fiery demon called the Balrog) to the invisible (actors who have been digitally shrunk to appear smaller), but never overwhelm that all-important sense of plausibility. In an instant, you can feel this place, its history, its past. You believe that people live there, and you believe that something terrible is threatening to destroy it. That belief forms the basis of the film's magic. Once we are in its grasp, we will follow it anywhere it wants to go.
The path is a dark one. Frodo Baggins (played by Elijah Wood) belongs to the race of hobbits, small pastoral folk whose proudest achievement is finding a new meal between breakfast and brunch. They live in a world populated by much greater beings -- powerful elves, surly dwarves, men divided between selflessness and greed -- and have no wish to leave their comforts behind. But into Frodo's hands falls the One Ring of Power, an artifact forged by the dark lord Sauron to enslave all of Middle-earth. The Ring cannot remain in the hobbits' Shire, not without threatening everything Frodo holds dear. So on the advice of the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), he flees his home with the Ring, taking only a few boon companions with him. Hunted by Sauron's dreaded Ringwraiths, they make for the elvish land of Rivendell, only to learn that their journey has just begun. The Ring's power will corrupt any who try to use it, and the only way to destroy its evil is to throw it into the unholy fires from which it came. Suddenly, the little hobbit who just wanted to smoke his pipe in peace must venture into the very heart of evil, and do something that the greatest kings and wizards could not accomplish.
The fairy tale elements are obvious, but not the thoughtful, detailed way in which the movie develops them. Jackson understands not only the essence of the story, but the best ways to convey it as a film. Every shot and frame drips with imagination, revealing things that no other medium could show. Yet it never gets out of hand: few monsters in cinematic history have the sheer visual power as the creatures we see here (the Balrog may have no peer), but they're not just effects. Nor are the sets just expensive backdrops or the action scenes just mindless noise. We never feel overwhelmed by the imagery or drowned in superfluous details. The story plays out quickly and efficiently, without short-changing the wondrous complexity of Tolkien's vision.
Consider, for example, the character of Legolas, played by Orlando Bloom. The elven representative in the Fellowship charged with protecting Frodo, he has the least amount of dialogue and seemingly little to do beyond killing orcs by the bushel. But with the weight of this fully realized world behind him, he takes on breadth and dimension almost by default. Through the impression of elves as a species -- shown almost in passing in the background -- we can sense his bravery, his compassion, his sense of honor. A package of plausibility becomes attached to him; he feels real, regardless of how many lines he has. The same principle applies to the entire film, be it a walk-on extra or an all-important battle scene.
The results are brilliant, fast-paced, and energetic, without losing any depth or meaning. Though three hours long, The Fellowship of the Ring goes by in an eye-blink, drawn along by a strong narrative thread and a host of brilliant performances. The casting director needs a big wet kiss on the mouth, for rarely have so many characters found such perfect actors to play them. From Viggo Mortensen's hard-bitten Aragorn to John Rhys-Davies' grouchy dwarf Gimli, the ensemble literally embodies every figure from the book. McKellen, in particular, brings a thoughtful complexity to Gandalf, delivering a high-water mark in his already distinguished career.
I could give any number of further reasons to see this film, but the best and most important can't be categorized. It's a feeling you have when the credits roll: a sense that you've experienced something all too rare in today's moviegoing environment. I left the theater floating on air, with a silly smile plastered to my face that took hours to subside. The scenes and images have lingered ever since, and it was all I could do to resist immediately hopping in line for another three-hour go 'round. The Fellowship of the Ring has that much power, and all the overhyping and studio marketing and Burger King tie-ins in the world can't diminish it.
This film affirms my faith in the medium.
Review published 12.20.2001.
For another opinion, read Gauti Fridriksson's review.
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